THE POWERFUL EFFECT OF MUSIC, SOUND, AND WORDLESS EXCHANGES IN KONCHALOVSKY'S HOUSE OF FOOLS
Andrei Konchalovsky's House of Fools (2002) is a vibrant, deeply-nuanced film full of beautiful moments of communication and expression, often nonverbal, between the characters. The director's use of music to convey meaning and emotion, as well as his brilliant use of body language, gestures, dancing, and poetry as a means of expression throughout the film, makes House of Fools one of the most complex films I've seen in terms of non-dialogue plot and character development.
House of Fools is set in a mental hospital in Ingushetia near the Chechen border during the first Chechen war. When a battle approaches the hospital grounds, the hospital staff leave to find safe transport for their patients. The patients, including Janna, a delusional young woman who believes she is Bryan Adams' fiancée, are left to their own devices until Chechen rebels take over the hospital and a strange mix of chaos, war, and celebration ensues.
Sound effects and music are, from the very beginning of House of Fools, an integral part of the film's plot and its overall effect on the viewer. Before the opening shot, while the credits are still rolling on a black screen, a loud chorus of dogs barking and birds squawking can be heard. This cacophony prepares the viewer for the wild, almost zoo-like atmosphere of the asylum, where the doctor whistles circus music and the war hero Mahmud wakes his fellow patients every morning by shouting out, rooster-like, "Allaaaaaaaaa-hu akhbar!" at the top of his lungs. Sound effects play a major role later on in the film, when the institution has been recovered by Russian forces and the full horror and devastation of war is conveyed not by gory footage, but by the eerie and disturbing sounds of warm blood dripping from the head of the dead Lithuanian sniper onto the floor and the crunching, chime-like sounds of shards of broken glass being kicked around and ground into the floor by soldiers' boots. The use of sound instead of words or graphic footage in this scene is subtle, but brilliant and effective in conveying the meaning of the scene.
From the moment Bryan Adams first appears in the opening scene of House of Fools, it is apparent to the viewer that music is going to be an important theme in the film. While the first few Adams fantasy sequences seemed bizarre and out of place, by the middle of the film they came to represent the beautiful, idealized world of Janna's imagination, where the simplistic lyrics of a pop song define what is important and necessary for life and happiness. Music provides an escape to another realm again at the dinner party scene, after Ali interrupts Janna's dance. It's a hauntingly beautiful scene: Ali intones his poetry in a low voice, which is picked up and almost seamlessly overwhelmed by the harmonious drone of a Chechen vocal song, a sound so unearthly that it moved me to tears on first hearing. The rebels, including Ahmed, are so removed during this scene that they don't notice Ali and Janna squabbling in the background. This scene nicely parallels Janna's many attempts throughout the film to resolve conflicts by playing her accordion and transforming the world into one of happiness, and it shows the humanity of both the patients and the rebels.
Nonverbal expression involving body language rather than sound is another effect that Konchalovsky uses frequently to give depth to the plot and characters of the film. Body language is beautifully used in the laundry-room scene, when Janna walks in on a group of rebels who have usurped her accordion. The viewer watches the scene tensely, afraid that the naive Janna will be harassed or molested by this group of men. Our fears are slightly relieved when the rebels scramble to cover themselves, obviously embarrassed at being seen by a woman in their half-clothed state. The tension of the scene gradually decreases as Janna is accepted into their presence and we see that the rebels smile and laugh with her not out of mockery, but out of genuine glee and curiosity. The rebels and especially Ahmed are fascinated by her wild, uninhibited form of dancing, and through this physical expression the rebels and Janna form a powerful bond with one another.
Character bonds are accentuated elsewhere throughout the film in delightful, brief exchanges. As Vika is being escorted to her room at the beginning of the film by a staff member at each elbow, the three of them do two dance steps in sync with each other before she starts wailing again. Later on we see Janna scurrying to pick up the lunch tray that Ali has thrown down, in order to protect him from punishment. And finally, the human bond between the commanders of the opposing armies is sealed when the Russian commander winks and gestures at his Chechen counterpart after words had failed both of them when they found out that they had served together in Afghanistan.
In summary, House of Fools is an outstanding film that nicely illustrates insanity, humanity, and emotional depth through Konchalovsky's clever use of musical and nonverbal expression.